‘Honor killing’: gender issue in Azerbaijani Mass Media
“What was she doing in the street in the middle of the night? – some representatives of our community would wonder after reading a rape report. They would say, she provoked it herself. ‘Decent women stay at home at night,’ they believe. This confidence is more a rule rather than an exception: women provoke the abusers in many different ways: she might wear revealing clothes, might be drunk, might be at the bar, which is a shame in itself and is a sign of promiscuity.
The patriarchal renaissance has been observed in Azerbaijan in the recent years. Gender stereotypes, that supposedly should have died out long time ago, are just strengthening their foothold, and what is more, in the most diverse spheres of public life.
The ethics of reporting on gender-based violence
Such stereotypes in our community cultivate and oftentimes form the local Mass Media.
A woman is mostly portrayed by Mass Media either as a sexual object and an initiator of some kind of incidents, or, contrary to the first image, as a caring, obedient and faithful wife to her husband. Both images could be found in women’s magazines and even in ad clips.
The importance of gender problem is considerably underestimated by the local media outlets, whereas the coverage of incidents resulting therefrom is lacking impartiality and sometime is openly biased. In what way? Let’s take, for example, the following news headline: ‘A female driver caused a car crash in Baku center.’ The word ‘female’ is brought to a fore. Such a headline conveys a negative connotation, giving saliency to the fact that the incident occurred through the woman’s fault.
The materials on gender-based violence, including murders, are mostly ‘dished up’ to the readers as ‘honor killings’, that ‘ardently’ resonate with the social media commentators, who encourage the perpetrators’ actions.
An honor killing is a homicide of a member of the family, most often (but not necessarily) a female, committed by relatives for bringing ‘dishonor’ on the family. A reporter may leave out some other details, but he/she will surely point out that a widowed mother’s love affair with her colleague ‘made people spread rumors about the family. So, her son couldn’t tolerate that and he murdered her.”
The UN Population Fund estimated that 5,000 honor killings are committed globally per year.
Here are a couple of Azerbaijani media headlines offhand:
‘Honor killing in Azerbaijan: the father shots dead his indecent daughter’, instead of, for example, ‘A man kills his own daughter’;
‘A man sentenced by court for honor killing of his sister’, instead of ‘A murderer of his own sister sentenced’;
‘Maarif Aliyev,16, murders his mother, Medina Gurbanova,37, in honor killing,’ instead of ‘a 16-year-old teen murders his own mother.’
Those headlines are showing one problem and creating another one. On the one hand, they merely ‘reflect’ a desire of the backward part of the Azerbaijani community to blame women in any situation. On the other hand, they nourish this backwoods mentality, thus further aggravating the problem.
A woman decided to commit suicide out of despair
The same applies to reporting on any form of gender-based violence. Many local reporters gladly communicate to the public the arguments about immorality of female characters of their articles.
Metanet Azizova, a human right activist, ex-head of the Azerbaijani Women’s Crisis Center, commented as follows:
“Mass media have a great influence on formation of gender stereotypes in the community; they create ‘good’ and ‘bad’ women’s images. Articles, stories, TV programs, are literally peppered with gender stereotypes. ‘A woman must … a woman is obliged…’, all those slogans are broadcasted by the media almost every minute. For example, a religious person is invited as an expert to the program on women’s rights. And he tells the audience that a woman who decides to divorce commits a sin and this contradicts the religious canons. That’s it. A gender stereotype is ready. ‘A divorced woman is bad; it’s a sin; it’s forbidden.’ Mass Media are also promoting an image of an exemplary and obedient wife. So, in case a character doesn’t fit in those criteria, she becomes subject to public reprimands. ‘A woman was beaten by her husband? People are never beaten up for no reason. Perhaps he caught her with some other man.’ A woman was insulted in a café? Women should stay at home at night. It served her right. Due to those v
ery stereotypes, an ordinary news that gives mentioning of a woman’s name may lead to some serious problems.
In Metanet Azizova’s words, women who were affected by Mass Media’s actions applied to the Crisis Center for assistance on the number of occasions.
“A woman who was shown in a crime program underwent a rehabilitation course in our Center. Her face was shown and her name was made public. She was accused of a theft. However, later, the investigation found that she hadn’t stolen anything. Yet, she was shown on TV against her will. So, she decided to commit suicide out of despair. Fortunately, medics managed to save her life, but she has had to undergo a lengthy treatment in a mental health center,” said Azizova.
In her opinion, it’s due to those very gender stereotypes that most of the rape cases go unpunished:
“I remember my conversation with a woman, whose daughter was sexually abused. When I advised her to punish a perpetrator, she refused, arguing that she was raising the girl and if the relatives and neighbors learned about that incident, she would become an outcast. No one would communicate with her or wish to marry her.
Websites operating in a ‘Shock!’-style
There is one more problem: cultivation of stereotypes, which is dangerous in and of itself, sort of ’replaces’ comprehensive coverage of gender issues: accurate and adequate materials on gender issues and domestic violence can be counted on one hand.
“In the early 2000s, the ‘Perekrestok’ (Crossroads) program, where I presented Azerbaijan, was covering the gender issues for 6 months. It was very hard to find female characters for the stories, given that it was a very sensitive issue and people were reluctant to openly discuss it. We met them halfway, we ‘blurred their faces’ and ‘staged footages’,” says Kenan Guluzade, a prominent journalist.
In his words, it works the other way round in the present-day Mass Media.
“Many websites are operating in a ‘SHOCK!’-style. It is noteworthy that the websites do it irrespective of whether a party to some conflict desires it or not. I don’t mean that everything should be hushed up, but the ethics should be observed. There are methods and instruments to prevent Mass Media from envenoming people’s lives, but a pursuit for higher ratings has sort of downplayed moral restrictions.”
Some more stereotypes
A myth that violence always occurs through a victim’s fault is hardly the only one. There are also some other stereotypes in the Azerbaijani community.
- If a husband beats his wife, it’s a private family matter (well, that can happen sometimes, can’t it?) and one shouldn’t interfere with it. Interestingly, the law-enforcers often share the same position.
- A woman has to endure violence to preserve her family. It is noteworthy that even a victim’s parents think so and they don’t let her return home to stop the violence.
- Gender-based violence is always manifested physically. Psychological pressure, intimidation and blackmailing, do not belong to such.
An endless circle
According to Eldar Zeynalov, the Head of the Azerbaijani Human Rights Center (AHRC), journalists aren’t to be blamed for spoiling our community. It’s the community itself that is burdened with low self-esteem and that orders such articles.
“The Mass Media with their small newspapers and rarely-visited websites are unable to shake their readers’ mindset. The journalists certainly can be blamed for lack of professionalism and shallowness (some of them deserve to be reproached). But let’s look through the popular Azerbaijani on-line media outlets and analyze their top news. Right now.
Media outlet 1: a ‘criminal kingpin’ batters an ‘aspirant’; ‘Mother Roza’ conceals soldiers’ food in her house; a singer reconciles with an oligarch and is presented with Lexus; a daughter of Azerbaijani Honored Actress marries a foreigner. And a bit of Karabakh news.
Media outlet 2: ‘Asphalt road laid to a funeral tent’; ‘An official spends US$400,000 for his daughter’s wedding party’; ‘Oligarch’s family to sell out all their assets. And a bit of Karabakh news.
Media outlet 3: weather forecast; ‘Insurance company’ branch CEO dies of inflicted head injury’. And also, a bit of Karabakh news.
None of the pressing issues, such as Islamic Games, the banking system crisis, agriculture downfall, increase in divorce rates, etc. have got in top news, though they are included in the newsfeed. And they won’t get there, because they are less interesting to an average reader than the society column or the show business scandals. Statistics is a stubborn thing,” the human activist believes.
In his opinion, any deviation from woman’s stereotypical behavior causes a stir in the Azerbaijani public and the journalists disseminate this news in pursuit of sensation.
‘A male prisoner can become a father several times while serving his term of imprisonment, but nobody cares for that. But once a woman got pregnant, it remained among top breaking news for several weeks.”
Thus, Mass Media spread about everything that the community ‘orders.’ Public opinion is ‘nourished’ by publications and TV stories, disseminated by Mass Media. It’s an endless circle.
What’s to be done?
Kenan Guluzade, a journalist:
“There are laws; there is a court; there are TV and Radio Council and the Press Council. A person, whose privacy has been violated by journalists, can seek punishment for the guilty through these organizations and normative acts. However, that’s hardly enough amidst the present-day mayhem. There could be certain progress in this regard, provided that information users change their priority. In other words, if there is no demand, nobody will buy those faulty goods.”
Layla Leysan, a journalist:
“The only way out is to amend the press and advertisement laws; to impose fines for the use of sexist ads, storylines and publications in Mass Media. There is no point teaching ethics at the journalism departments, since the majority of our media workers don’t have special education.”
Eldar Zeynalov, a human rights activist:
“Many media outlets are secured by sponsorship of this or that oligarch and there is fat chance that it wouldn’t work. But one should try anyway, at least one can appeal to the European Court of Human Rights. Since unlike a newspaper or a TV channel, which can be private, court is a public institution and if the court is unfair during consideration of a private claim against a private media outlet, then it’s the state that should be blamed for that.”
Metanet Azizova, a human rights activist:
“Perhaps there could be some changes if people become more enlightened, if they communicate more, if they help others, feel empathy to other people’s pain and problems. Mass Media produce whatever the community demands, and the present-day community demands blood, flesh and circuses.”